Laura Nyro (October 18 1947 – April 8 1997) was an American composer, lyricist, singer, and pianist.
In 1971, Laura Nyro Came Out On The Down Low, Tucked Under The Covers.
This past April marked the Tenth anniversary of the
death of Laura Nyro. For more than a decade, beginning in the late sixties, Laura was very popular as a singer/songwriter. Her singing alone rivaled Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Labelle, Grace Slick, Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler et al. As a singer/songwriter, she was the equal of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Carly Simon, and Stevie Nicks.
Laura Nyro's treatment of her song "Desiree" is one of
the most undisguised professions of love by a woman singing to another woman ever recorded.
In November 1971, at the age of 24, Laura Nyro first
came out in her adaptation of a song which she titled "Desiree." I am convinced that the inspiration for that song
was her eventual life partner, Maria Desiderio.
Ari Fox Lauren, the foremost authority on the music of
Laura Nyro, wrote “Emmie’ and ‘Desiree’ are open expressions of same-sex attraction on Laura’s part.”
Michele Kort authored the biography Soul Picnic: The
Music and Passion of Laura Nyro. In her book, Ms Kort echoed this sentiment. "If you want to know her...go to her music."
My request to the reader is that you do just that; listen
to the song.
The following facts are too numerous and certain to be
Laura Nyro, who was born on October 18, 1947, grew up
in the Bronx. Her father was Italian-American and her mother Jewish-American.
Laura spent her last 17 years with a life partner, a
woman named Maria Antonia Desiderio. Maria who was “…seven years Laura’s junior” was “born in Brooklyn.”
In the mid 1960s, Laura performed at the Hungry I.
The Hungry I was located in the North Beach section of San Francisco. At that time, North Beach was the hub of the city’s lesbian bars. In the early 70s, Laura's avid fans "...were mainly young girls and gay guys…"
Laura was a compendium of Doo-wop songs. Her version of “Desiree,” i.e. the musical composition along with the redacted lyrics is considered to be an attribution of a
According to Vicki Wickham, the manager of Labelle, Maria
was not around at the time of the recording of the album Gonna Take a Miracle which was released on November 17, 1971. Laura “… was the main selector of the material for the album...” The review of Gonna Take a Miracle, found in the Columbia Records Archive, describes both "Desiree" and "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" as "... lesser known covers..."
In October 1971, Laura held a party in celebration of
her marriage. She divorced in 1974.
Unmarried in 1978, Laura gave birth to her only child,
Laura died at 49 years old in April 1997. Maria died at
the age of 45 in 1999. Both women died of ovarian cancer. Maria’s “…ashes were buried under the Japanese maple alongside Laura’s…”
Desiree is a woman's name which in French or Latin means desire. Maria's last name, Desiderio, is Italian for desire. Maria claimed that she was pursued by “Laura, ‘…who f
riends say had not previously been with a woman lover…”
Some biographical sources speculate that Laura and Maria
first met, in the late 1970’s and others say, in the early 1980’s. In fact, no one knows exactly when Laura and Maria first met. "None of Laura's close friends are certain how she met Maria..." And as to how they might have first met, one theory is "...backstage after a concert..." and the other is at or near Maria's bookstore in Newport Beach, Ca.
Laura and Maria’s relationship was characterized as
having its ups and downs with periods of separation.
Throughout her career, Laura resisted sexual
orientation labels. During their relationship, she and Mari a worked assiduously to maintain the facade of separate lives.
My premise is that both theories, as to when and how
Laura and Maria first met, each contain a bit of the truth. The first meeting was backstage, but in 1970-71. They also rekindled the relationship in Newport Beach, Ca. in the 1980s.
When Laura and Maria first met some time in late 1970
or early 1971, Laura was 23 years old and Maria was 16 or 17 years old. At that time, Maria may have used the nickname, Desiree.
If as their friends claim, Maria was Laura’s first
same-sex lover, then it can be argued that: Laura’s musical precocity & sophistication; her exposure to the LGBT subculture of the mid 60s & early 70s; and her bi-sensual flirtation with the lyrics in “Emmie” in the late 60’s, make it highly plausible that Laura first met Maria in the early 70s and not in the early 80s.
Laura and Maria would have met, before the summer
of 1971, i.e. before Laura and Labelle went into the studio to record the album Gonna Take a Miracle. Very likely, the meeting between Laura and Maria led to a brief encounter, but as often happens in a first time same-sex experience, Laura was enchanted.
Shortly after, Maria separated from Laura. At sixteen, Maria may have been capricious about her romantic attachments. With the romance now unrequited, but Laura still smitten,
she would have had few options in pursuing her forbidden love.
In late 1971, Laura celebrated being newly married. Ironically, this fact supports my premise about the time
frame of the first meeting with Maria. A woman may seek security in a relationship with a man as a reaction to an unfulfilled experience with another woman. It is also quite common for a woman to be in denial in coping with the emotions that accompany a nascent same–sex love affair.
The periods before and after the recording of
“Desiree” saw Laura bracketed in a persona of notorious heterosexuality. By late 1970, her affair with Jackson Browne had run its course. By October of 1971, the marriage to her husband was becoming known. This would have served to make her feel secure in her sexual identity. It would have helped to allay any homophobia concerning possible adverse publicity, if “Desiree” generated any talk or gossip.
Regardless, Laura would have turned to her music
to resolve her feelings. The passion that Laura expressed in "Desiree" made it a paean to the absolute love she felt for Maria. The title cover "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" completed the catharsis. These two lesser known songs were selected because they held a special meaning for Laura and enabled her to endure the loss of Maria. At the end of 1971, her desire for Maria was for now, safely put away. A secret tucked among ten Doo-wop covers in the album Gonna Take a
Miracle. Nevertheless, even while on the down low, her
love for a woman was there for the whole world to hear.
Laura then carried the torch for Maria for ten years.
But in or around 1980, she successfully renewed her pursuit
of Maria. Later in her life, Laura once described Maria as her “soul mate.” This relationship continued on and off for
the rest of their lives.
As an Italian-American girl from Brooklyn, Maria would
have known that her last name, Desiderio, meant desire. As a teenager growing up in the 60s & 70s, the name Desiree would have had an allure about it. It is likely that she would have found her given name, Maria, somewhat ordinary. It would have been easy for her to research nicknames to discover names similar to desire, viz. Desiree.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Laura
and Maria began their relationship in the 1980s. Considering
the longevity of that relationship, and the depth of the
emotional intimacy, it is obvious that Laura and Maria would have processed every bit of their personal information with each other. It is certain that Laura would have known that Maria’s last name meant desire. It follows that Laura and/or
Maria would have made the connection between the song and
the similarity in the meaning of the names.
If indeed, it was pure chance that both names meant
desire, isn’t odd that no one ever pointed this out or even mentioned this otherwise remarkable coincidence? Isn’t it more likely, that if this was merely an interesting curiosity,
both Maria and Laura would have shared this coincidence with others? Why, is it that Laura and Maria never told anyone the
exact details of how and when they first met? I have interviewed scores of people on this very point. Every one of them knows exactly when and how they first met the love of their life. Every one of them has shared the exact details with others. Phyllis Lyon, co-founder of the Daughters of Bilitis, agreed it was strange that not even their intimate associates knew.
If I am right about the time frame of the first meeting,
the revelation of the age disparity would have been too provocative. This is underscored by the fact that in the early 1980s, Laura was unmarried with a young son. It also explains their fetish for privacy after the relationship renewed in the 80's and 90s.
Speculations, concerning Laura’s sexual orientation
and the so-called coming out song, were rife. Some of the songs analyzed were “Emmie,” “The Confession,” “Melody in the Sky,” “Roadnotes,” and “Sweet Dream Fade.”
In “Emmie” while the love object is a woman, the love
lyrics are ambiguous as to friendship or sensuality or maybe it’s both?
As to the “…lustful song ‘Roadnotes,” Michelle Kort
described Laura’s vocal style as “…sultrily…singing in a bedroom voice.” But, as a coming out song, the uncertainty of the gender of the lover is problematic. On the other hand, in “Desiree,” the object of Laura’s sultriness is unmistakably female.
As coming out songs, these other works are mired in
guesswork. Their love lyrics are either vague or ambiguous or gender neutral. On the other hand, the lyrics of “Desiree” are express and obvious in their sensuality, and clear as to the female gender of the love object.
Sinead O’Connor in her album Sean-Nós Nua covered a well known, lesbian lament song, “Peggy Gordon.” In her documentary, Song of Hearts Desire, Sinead stated that her inspiration for
the song was her friend. That friend was a lesbian who sang the song to lament the loss of her partner of years. In the DVD of the song “Peggy Gordon,” Sinead made it emphatic by her performance, that this was a woman singing to her lost love, another woman.
No one seems to have any idea who might have been the inspiration for Laura’s emphatic interpretation of “Desiree”?
I believe there is an actual person, because Laura personalized the song. She did this by changing the name,
redacting the lyrics and adapting the musical composition from the classic Doo-wop to a standard ballad style. Doo-wop is characterized by the harmonies of the small background group. She sings this song almost entirely by herself with the exception of adding Labelle for emphasis in the closing crescendo.
“Desiree" is a Torch song. It is raw, sultry, and emphatic. "Desiree" did not exist until Laura adapted it! She derived her version from "Deserie" a classic Doo-wop
song which, musically, is a different tune. She changed the name of the love object of the song, and in that way, Laura made the song her own.
She opens the song with a long voluptuous “Oh”!
She then follows with a sensual refrain of her lover's name. The remainder of the song contains unambiguous statements of love with the final refrain of the name, Desiree, being repeated and harmonized as the song builds to and culminates in a crescendo.
I am certain that the actual person who provided the inspiration was Maria.
Laura's friends were convinced that Maria was her first
same-sex lover. It is very likely, knowing Laura and her lifestyle up to that point, that her coming out with Maria would have been in 1971, in her 20s, and not in her 30s. The song is Laura’s way of marking that event in her life and in her music.
Back in 1971, the depth of feeling that Laura
displayed, coupled with the obvious lyrics, made “Desiree” unique as a woman’s love song. Even today it stands apart.
If Laura had not wanted the truth to be known someday, I believe she would not have thrown caution to the wind
in 1971, by so emphatically adapting "Desiree."
The inspiration for this article came when I first
heard the songs “Desiree” and “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” juxtaposed in the film A Home at the End of the World. It was shown on the LOGO channel.
Ultimately, nothing that I can write in support of
my beliefs is as compelling as listening to the two songs together.
Listen to the songs; then tell me I’m wrong.
-Special thanks to: Ari Lauren, Michelle Kort,
Vicki Wickham, & the LOGO channel-
By “Ralph, let’s call her Ralph.”